Bulletin #4428, Creating Safe Spaces for all Youth: Working with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Youth
Creating Safe Spaces for all Youth
Working with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Youth
Prepared by Judith Graham Ph.D., Extension human development specialist, Dr. Lisa Phelps, Extension Educator, and Betsy Parsons, current co-chair of Southern Maine GLSEN.
Continuing Perspectives on Human Development
This edition of Family Issues is the third in our 2003-2004 series on human development. The first in this series, “From a Relational Point of View,” focused on Relational-Cultural (RC) theory. Originally, relational theory was a counterpoint to traditional (male) research on the process of human development, which was applied to men and women alike. Relational theory has now “outgrown” these feminist foundations. The validity of understanding the role relationships play in our development, regardless of our gender or culture, is now widely accepted.
Developmental cycles are part of many theories of human development— both ancient and modern. The second Family Issues in this series, “Cycles of Development,” focused on how Transactional Analysis (TA) uses developmental cycles to understand stages of development, “parenting” or nurturing ourselves and others, adult learning, and adjustment to change. Especially intriguing are the TA concepts of recycling and updating developmental tasks in our adult years.
With this third issue in our series on human development, we take advantage of the expertise of Extension Educator Lisa Phelps. Lisa has worked for many years with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (GLBTQ) youth. In this issue she brings research, insight and sensitivity to this topic.
As a public institution, Cooperative Extension fully supports the human rights of all people. Amnesty International defines human rights as the “basic standards people need to live in dignity.”1 All students in our schools are guaranteed equal protection by the 14th Amendment and by Title IX. One of the most powerful ways we can promote the continued evolution of GLBTQ rights is through human rights education. We offer this publication as one tool to ensure that all schools are safe spaces, free of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment.
Toward a Healthy Environment for All Youth
For almost 15 years I have worked with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning (GLBTQ) youth as an advocate, counselor and educator. During this time I have had the opportunity to be involved in the lives of youths who identify themselves as GLBTQ. There have been times when I have been the only other person a youth has trusted with knowing their invisible sexual identity.
Working with GLBTQ youth has been a challenging experience. Over the years, I have felt alone and overwhelmed with all of the support GLBTQ youth have expected and deserved. There have been many anti-gay episodes that occurred on the campus where I was previously employed and in my community, and I was actively involved with many of the institutional responses to these incidents. I have had to play the polarized roles of both administrator and support person to the GLBTQ youths who have been directly affected by these incidents. These experiences have taught me that it is important to have allies who can offer support through difficult times. I have learned many things about trust and the value of acceptance.
Currently, I am employed as an Extension educator in Cumberland County for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. I work with 4-H youth and family development programs. I am committed to positive youth development and I believe that as a caring and supportive community we can make a difference in the lives of youth.
My work with GLBTQ youth has left me angry, sad, frustrated, happy and proud. The most difficult situations I have faced involved the suicides of two young gay males. The first youth was not very involved as a member of the campus GLBT group, and he was not “out” to many in the GLBT community. He struggled to belong, to be accepted and to be happy. Although I will never truly know the realities of his struggles, I will forever be affected by his decision to end his life. The second student I knew quite well. The pseudonym I will use for him is Tim. Tim was a former leader of the GLBT student group and was very involved with student government. He made many people laugh with his sense of humor. Yet, he told me that deep down he was not happy. He could not fully accept the fact that he was gay and he did not have the support of his family. Tim’s experiences as an out gay student were difficult for him and he often struggled in the classroom and on campus. His struggles led to a secret life of drinking and drugs that ultimately killed him. His memory will be with me for the rest of my life.
Finding ways to feel safe in an unsafe world can be one of the biggest challenges for GLBTQ youth. It is important that professionals and individuals working with young people understand their unique needs. I have spoken to many youths over the years who have told me what a difference a truly caring adult can make. As an educator I believe I have a responsibility to help make a difference in the lives of at-risk youths. I hope you share in this belief.
My grandmother taught me that through understanding there can be learning and ultimately, change. This issue of Family Issues includes information to help educators and parents increase their understanding of GLBTQ issues, and provide access to the resources that can ultimately help create a healthier environment for all youth. We present recommendations for working with GLBTQ youth, a guide to GLBTQ terminology, a model to help establish safer classroom spaces, a review of two sexual identity development models, information for teachers, suggestions for how to talk with children about GLBTQ issues, and resources in Maine.
Within the GLBTQ communities there are many different terms and labels that people use and identify with. Others choose not to have a label assigned to them. It truly is an individual choice and one that must be respected. However, for the purpose of this publication I have chosen GLBTQ. This is a commonly used term meant to be inclusive of all sexual minority youth, and is used most frequently throughout the literature, research and information included and referenced in this publication.
The following definitions are provided to help people increase their understanding and knowledge of GLBTQ individuals. It is important to note that many GLBTQ youth do not identify with these labels and refuse to be put in “boxes.” Instead they would prefer the freedom to be who they are without the labels and stereotypes that accompany them.
GLBTQA: An acronym for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning individuals and their Allies.
Ally: A heterosexual or straight person who works to reduce homophobia and heterosexism.
Bisexual: Someone who is emotionally and physically attracted to members of both sexes.
Coming Out: When people admit their sexual or gender identity to themselves and/or others. A person who is not “out” may be said to be “in the closet.” The experience of coming out is different for everyone.
Gay: A man who is emotionally and physically attracted to other men. This term is also sometimes used to describe homosexual women, but lesbian is often preferred.
Heterosexual: A person who is emotionally and physically attracted to members of the opposite sex or gender. Some GLBTQ people refer to heterosexual people as straight.
Heterosexism: A belief that everyone is or should be heterosexual. Societal/cultural, institutional, and individual beliefs and practices that assume that heterosexuality is the only natural, normal, acceptable sexual orientation.
Homosexual: A person whose sexual orientation is towards a member of the same gender or sex. This term is mostly clinical, and rarely used by people when defining themselves. Generally “homosexual” is replaced by gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Lesbian: A woman who is emotionally and physically attracted to other women.
Queer: This word has been used in a negative way to describe gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or trans. people. Now gay, lesbian and trans. people often use the word in a positive way to include all people who are not “straight.”
Sexual Orientation: A persons’ affectional, emotional, psychological, spiritual, physical and/or sexual attraction.
Transgender: Having a gender identity that is different from one’s biological sex. Transgender often is used as an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of gender identities (e.g. drag queen/king, transsexual, androgyne, bigendered, M2F, F2M).
Intersex: A person born with sex chromosomes, external genitalia or an internal reproductive system that is not considered “standard” for either male or female. (Definition and more information available at http://isna.org/).
Transsexual: A person who was born one sex (usually male or female) and who lives their life as the opposite sex. Sometimes people have surgery to change their bodies to fit their gender identity.
These definitions were provided by the youth and staff at Outright in Portland, Maine, with a few modifications by the author based on educational experiences with teaching terminology.
Sexual Identity Development Models
There are several models illustrating general patterns of sexual identity development. Some of them are stage models, in which people are thought to progress through stages; once they have passed through a stage they do not go back to it. Others, known as human development models, have steps or stages that individuals move among, back and forth. In both cases, the models do not just focus on the individual and the internal process, rather they examine a person’s family, society, friends, politics and relationships as external forces affecting a person’s “coming out” process. The Cass model, which is a stage model, and the D’Augelli model, which is a human development model, together provide a good comparison of sexual identity development models.
The Cass Stage Model
|In 1979, Vivienne Cass reviewed data collected on gay and lesbian subjects in Western Australia. Her resulting model is one of the most popular models used in reviewing gay and lesbian identity development. Cass’ model is a stage model, which implies that people progress through the stages in order, one at a time.|
|Stage One, identity confusion||Information about homosexuality becomes personally relevant for the individual at this stage, thus causing the person to be confused about his or her sexual identity. A person begins to wonder if he or she is gay or lesbian.|
|Stage Two, identity comparison||A person in this stage accepts the possibility that he or she is gay or lesbian. For many, it is a way to help cope with the confusion that is prevalent in stage one.|
|Stage Three, identity tolerance||The individual accepts the fact that he or she is gay. This leads to a process of recognizing the needs associated with being gay.|
|Stage Four, identity acceptance||A person desires more contact with gay culture, which increases contact with other gay people. The increased contact leads to a more positive gay self-image. This is an important step in the coming-out experience.|
|Stage Five, identity pride||The individual in this stage becomes immersed in gay life, which means that they spend little time interacting with heterosexual people. There can be anger at heterosexual people during this stage. Usually the individual believes that heterosexual people cannot be allies and probably should not be trusted.|
|Stage Six, identity synthesis||A person realizes that it is not an us-versus-them situation. The anger experienced in the previous stage subsides and it is now possible to believe that people who are not gay can be allies and can be trusted. It is believed that an individual in stage six lives a more healthy and positive life.|
|Source: V. C. Cass, “Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model,” Journal of Homosexuality 4 (3): 219-235.|
The D’Augelli Human Development Model
|D’Augelli (1995) proposed a model of lesbian and gay development based on a human development model. The human development perspective states that “identity is conceived of as the dynamic processes by which an individual emerges from many social exchanges experienced in different contexts over an extended historical period—the years of his or her life.” The model uses steps instead of stages, indicating an individual’s ability to go back and forth between steps.|
|Step One, exiting heterosexual identity||There is recognition that a person’s sexual orientation is not heterosexual.|
|Step Two, developing a personal lesbian-gay-bisexual
|A person develops a personal lesbian-gay-bisexual identity status that is their own.|
|Step Three, developing a lesbian-gay-bisexual social identity||The individual develops and finds more community support and friendships.|
|Step Four, becoming a lesbian-gay-bisexual
|The individual focuses on coming out with his or her biological family and dealing with the variety of issues and responses that result.|
|Step Five, developing a lesbian-gay-bisexual intimacy status||In this step, while developing lesbian-gay-bisexual intimacy status, many gay and lesbian couples are invisible, thus making it difficult for gays and lesbians to publicly acknowledge gay and lesbian relationships.|
|Step Six, entering a lesbian-gay-bisexual community||A person enters the lesbian-gay-bisexual community and becomes active in political and social settings.|
|Source: A. R. D’Augelli, “Identity development and sexual orientation: Toward a model of lesbian, gay, and bisexual development,” in E. J. Trickett and others (eds.), Human diversity: Perspectives on people in context (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995), 312-332.|
Talk About It
Through the years I have had numerous conversations with parents, adults and teachers about how to talk with youth about GLBTQ issues. I have had parents ask me what they should say to their sons and daughters when they have been asked questions about gay issues. I have had teachers ask me how they can be more inclusive in their classrooms and how they should respond to the questions their students are asking. In responding to their questions I have stressed the importance of creating safe and supportive opportunities for youth to ask questions and have discussions that are age-appropriate. Typically, youth hear and learn about GLBTQ issues through the media at an early age. Unfortunately some of the images they see are based on stereotypes and can be negative.
In 2002 the National Mental Health Association asked Dr. Lynn Ponton, a child psychiatrist, to develop a brochure that could be a resource for parents in talking to youth about sexual orientation and prejudice. Combining years of experience with parent interviews conducted by the National Mental Health Association, she shares the following tips about talking with youth.
How to Talk With Preschool-Age Children (3 to 5 Years)
Children aged 3 to 5 ask a lot of questions, but they are just looking for basic, uncomplicated information. They often express themselves through play and pretend.
- Keep answers to their questions simple and concrete.
- Avoid detailed or graphic explanations.
- Don’t be surprised if pretending includes dressing up as the opposite sex.
- Remember that playing at things that are normally done by kids of the opposite sex is normal and healthy.
- Use picture books to help communicate ideas and feelings.
How to Talk With School-Age Children (6 to 12 Years)
Children aged 6 to 12 see things in terms of how they relate to their own lives. By age 11 or 12, they can identify with others as well as understand that they can have several feelings about something at the same time. Many preteens are thinking about sex, even if they’re not talking about it.
- Listen to see why the child wants to know what she is asking.
- Find out what the child wants to know as well as needs to know.
- Be prepared for more complicated questions as kids grow older.
- Talk openly and be as honest as possible.
- Work with the child to find answers to questions you are unsure of. This helps him learn that curiosity is nothing to be ashamed of.
How to Talk With Teenagers (13 to 18 Years)
Sexuality and expressing oneself as a boy or girl are major parts of adolescent lives. Peer opinions and actions are also highly valued by teens. Most teens want the freedom to express themselves and want privacy around their changing bodies and sexual activity. The teen years can be a confusing and difficult time, and teens who are gay or lesbian can feel particularly alone.
- Discuss anti-gay prejudice and model healthy behavior.
- Discourage harassment or violence.
- Listen carefully and help teens feel safe to talk about their feelings.
- If you know a teen who is gay, lesbian or questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, tell them about support networks such as those listed at the end of this publication.
Source: Lynn Ponton, “What Does Gay Mean?” How to Talk with Kids about Sexual Orientation and Prejudice (Alexandria, VA: National Mental Health Association, 2002), 7-11. http://www1.nmha.org/whatdoesgaymean/index.cfm (accessed January 21, 2004)
Tips for Professionals Who Work With GLBTQ Youth
- Don’t be surprised when a youth “comes out” to you.
- Respect confidentiality.
- Be informed and examine your own biases.
- Know when and where to seek help.
- Maintain a balanced perspective.
- Understand the meaning of sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Deal with feelings first.
- Be supportive.
- Anticipate some confusion.
- Help, but do not force.
- Don’t try to guess who is GLBTQ.
- Challenge homophobic remarks and jokes.
Source: Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), “Tips for Professionals Who Work With GLBT Youth . . .” (Washington DC), http://www.pflagnyc.org/resources/pflag-nyc_tips-for-professionals_en.pdf (accessed January 21, 2004). Excerpted with permission.
Ten Things Educators Can Do
- Do not assume heterosexuality. The constant assumption of heterosexuality renders lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people invisible. The school as an institution, as well as its professionals, must be inclusive in their language and attitudes.
- Guarantee equality. LGBT members of the school community need to know that their schools value equality and that they are protected against discrimination. Schools should add sexual orientation and gender identity to their non-discrimination and harassment policies.
- Create a safe environment. It is the school’s obligation to take proactive measures to ensure that all members of its community have a right to participate without fear of harassment. Schools must make it clear that neither physical violence nor harassing language like “faggot” and “dyke” will be tolerated.
- Diversify library and media holdings. The library is frequently the first place to which students turn for accurate sexuality and gender information. Too often, few or no works on LGBT issues are found there. Librarians and media specialists need to be sure their holdings are up to date and reflect the diversity of our world. Materials that reflect LGBT themes and authors should be prominently displayed and easily accessible to students seeking them.
- Provide training for faculty and staff. School staff need to be equipped to serve all the students with whom they work, including LGBT students and children from LGBT families.
- Provide appropriate health care and education. Health education on sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases should sensitively address the issues of LGBT people. Counselors and health staff should be particularly careful to make their sensitivity to LGBT issues clear. By educating themselves about related support services and agencies, and making pamphlets and other literature available, health professionals can provide for the needs of the LGBT students and families with whom they work.
- Be a role model. Actions speak louder than words. The most effective way to reduce anti-LGBT bias is to consistently behave in ways that appreciate all human beings and condemn discrimination of any kind. By demonstrating respectful language, intervening during instances of anti-LGBT harassment, and bringing diverse images into the classroom in safe and affirming ways, all staff members can be model human beings for the students with whom they work.
- Provide support for students. Peer support and acceptance is the key to any student’s feeling of belonging in the school. “Gay-Straight Alliances” (GSAs) offer students this sense of belonging as well as the chance to effect positive change in their schools.
- Reassess the curriculum. Educators need to integrate LGBT issues throughout the curriculum—not just in classes such as health education, but in disciplines such as English, History, Art and Science. Preexisting curricula should be broadened to include LGBT images where appropriate (such as in studies of the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement). Current events, popular music and film, and other media that include LGBT people and issues should be regularly discussed in class.
- Broaden entertainment and extracurricular programs. Extracurricular activities often set the tone for the community. Programs such as assemblies, film nights, and school fairs should regularly include content that reflects the diversity of our world. Special LGBT events and holidays such as LGBT History Month (October) and Pride Month (June) should be incorporated into school-wide celebrations.
Source: The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), “Ten Things Educators Can Do . . .” (New York: 2002), http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/library/record/253.html (accessed January 21, 2004). Excerpted with permission.
What Happened to Johnny
The connection between sexual orientation and homelessness
Johnny is 15 years old and can be described as a struggling teen. He recently came to terms with his sexual orientation and came out as a gay male. His coming out process has not been easy. When the kids at school found out that Johnny was gay, he became the victim of verbal, physical and emotional abuse by his peers. Johnny became known as a troublemaker and he was constantly in fights. The reality is that Johnny was only trying to protect himself; he never started the fights.
Johnny desperately needed love and support from his parents, to be accepted for who he was as a person. Unfortunately, this was not the case for Johnny. After he came out to his parents they would not speak to him. They told him that “no son of theirs would be gay.” His father told him that if he continued to believe he was gay, then he needed to pack his bags and leave. He would not have a gay kid living under his roof.
Johnny didn’t know what to do or where to go for support. He knew he was gay and he no longer wanted to live a lie and try to pretend he was heterosexual. He knew his father’s threats were real and he was scared. He approached his parents and tried to talk to them about being gay—about how important their support was to him. His mother began to cry. His father became angry, hit Johnny and told him to pack and leave their house. Scared, angry and confused, Johnny packed his bags and left his home, but he didn’t know where to go or who to call. This began his life on the streets and his quest for survival.
This story combines many of the voices and experiences I have heard from gay teens. It is estimated that 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth in urban areas are gay, lesbian or bisexual.2 This startling percentage has grown over the years. The relationship between gay youth and homelessness has been well documented.3 The reasons for the relationship can be difficult to understand. Some parents refuse to accept that they have a gay child and react by treating the child in a hurtful and painful way. This experience can lead to isolation, poor self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse, and even suicide.
Imagine being abandoned by your family, being harassed in school, and experiencing verbal and physical abuse on a regular basis. Imagine feeling like you are the only person in the world feeling this way and having nowhere to turn. Gay youth who are living on the streets learn at an early age that the world can be a cruel and unfriendly place. Many youths turn to prostitution and drugs to survive. Even if a gay youth does find a shelter to stay in, they run the risk of encountering homophobia in the shelter and becoming the victim of hate crimes. Several cities are now trying to organize GLBT-friendly shelters for homeless youth.
G. Kruks, “Gay and lesbian homeless/ street youth: special issues and concerns,” Journal of Adolescent Health 12, no. 7 (1991): 515-518.
Prevention of Health Problems Among Gay and Lesbian Youth: Making Health and Human Services Accessible and Effective for Gay and Lesbian Youth. (Boston: Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, 1994).
Creating a “Safe Space” in the Classroom*
In 1999, I conducted a study to explore classroom experiences for self-identified lesbian undergraduate students in higher education. Although the study centered on lesbian college students, I believe the findings can be expanded to inform our work with GLBTQ youth in K-12 settings.
What became apparent during the study is that specific supportive behaviors can produce specific positive outcomes. Moreover, the teacher is instrumental in producing these outcomes. A model emerged from the study for establishing a “safer space” in the classroom.
This model suggests that if the fear, silence, use of energy, need for self-talk, stereotyping, and guardedness of GLBTQ youth can be decreased, and the amount of teacher and peer support can be increased, it is possible to create a classroom space that feels safe.
The study found that certain outcomes are possible once a “safe space” is created in the classroom. When students are freed from putting energy into wondering if they are safe—once they cease feeling the need to be guarded and defensive—they can just be themselves and focus on participating in class as a student. When this happens, a richer academic experience and better grades are likely to follow.
Thus, by providing GLBTQ youth with a “safe space,” we allow them to increase their level of commitment, genuineness and active participation in class. This “safe” classroom then becomes a more effective learning environment for everyone.
Some common themes emerged from the narrative data in this study. These themes form the components of the safe space model:
Fear: The first component of the model is to acknowledge the fear that exists in the classroom environment and the need to reduce it. Study participants especially associated fear with voicing their opinions and ideas, because they were unsure how their comments would affect their classroom experiences with their teachers and peers.
Silence: Silence is the second component of this model. Because of the unsafe classroom environment, many of the participants remained silent. The silence seemed to increase their invisibility.
Use of Energy: The third component of the model involves the use of energy, especially concerning issues of safety. Many of the study participants acknowledged that they used an enormous amount of energy trying to assess whether or not they could be “out” safely in an environment.
Positive Self-Talk: In this component of the model, participants used positive self-talk to help themselves feel safer and boost their self esteem. Study participants who did not have a “safe space” in which they could be themselves spent time trying to convey positive messages to themselves when they felt afraid.
Stereotyping: The study revealed that stereotyping people can affect the creation of a “safe space.” Issues of fear and safety seemed to be more prominent for study participants who fit the traditional lesbian stereotype of having short hair and looking more masculine. In many ways, stereotypes produced more internalized homophobic responses from the participants, and some found their behavior changing if they fit more of the stereotypes.
Being Guarded: Putting up walls and remaining guarded is another component of this model. Participants who found themselves without a safe space became guarded and protective of themselves. The degree of caution and the height of each wall were each dependent on the women’s past experiences and perceived levels of safety and fear.
The Power of a Teacher
The power of a teacher is the next component of this model. It was obvious that the teachers of the students in this study had an influential impact on the classroom experience for the participants. Their influence could be either positive or negative and dramatically affected the students’ classroom experiences. If the teacher was an ally, the level of trust and classroom participation of the women increased. Participants were more willing to express their thoughts and ideas openly and honestly. If they had a controversial opinion, they were more willing to express it, because they knew that any negative classroom experiences would be confronted.
The study revealed that there can be a tremendous amount of energy used to determine if a teacher is supportive of GLBT issues—energy that probably could be better applied to classroom performance and participation. There will be more “out” GLBT students in the classroom as the years progress, and they deserve to be in a learning environment that is safe and free of harassment. The ability to have a voice and use it will inevitably help put faces on an invisible population. Teachers play a vital role in establishing a safe classroom environment.
Peer support is the final component of this model. Many of the participants described themselves as independent people who did not depend on peer support. This sense of independence seemed to be a mask necessary for survival. Several of the study participants recalled many instances when they heard negative comments about GLBT people from their peers, after which they became more guarded and felt unsafe participating in class. Support from peers during participants’ “coming out” process was essential, and in many ways it served as a test to find out who they could really depend on.
It would appear that given the opportunity to be who they truly are, GLBTQ youth can lead fuller lives with more positive experiences.
Below is a visual display of the model.
*Based on Lisa Phelps, Classroom Experiences of Self-Identified Lesbian Undergraduate Students in Higher Education (University of Northern Colorado: published Doctor of Philosophy dissertation, 1999). Copying this article for educational use is permitted as long as this citation is included.
Establishing a “Safe Classroom Space”: Components of a Model
↓ Fear exists in an unsafe classroom environment.
↓ An unsafe environment produces silence.
↓ Enormous amounts of energy are spent on assessing the environment.
↓ Lack of a safe space produces the need for positive self-talk.
↓ Stereotyping students can affect the creation of a “safe space.”
↓ Lack of safe space produces students who are guarded and protective (of self).
↑ Teachers have an influential impact on the classroom experience.
↑ Peer support leads to more positive experiences.
Gay-straight alliances are student-organized, student-led school clubs that work to create a safe, welcoming and accepting school environment for all youth and families, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
A gay-straight alliance (GSA) brings together straight and GLBTQ young people to address issues that affect the whole school community, including harassment, discrimination and bias. GSAs provide a supportive environment for GLBTQ students, as well as those who are perceived as GLBT, those who are questioning their identity, and children of GLBT families.
GSA educational and social activities are designed to support all youth and to help raise awareness about every student’s right to learn in a safe and affirming environment. All students, parents, school staff and community members who care about safety and equal educational opportunity for everyone can help the work of GSAs.
Gay-Straight Alliances in the U.S. and in Maine
Since the first GSA formed in 1989, nearly 2,000 high schools across the nation have established GSAs, involving nearly 40,000 high school students in reducing anti-gay bias in their schools. More of these groups are being born each year, in a powerful student-initiated movement to help high schools become safer places for learning. GSAs are also beginning to be established in middle schools.
About twenty southern Maine high schools have active GSAs, as well as several more in other parts of the state. Among public schools within a one-hour radius of Portland, the twenty existing southern Maine GSAs are about evenly distributed among urban, suburban, town and rural high schools. The list also includes three independent schools in this region.
How to Get Help Starting a GSA
The growth of GSAs is actively supported by GLSEN (pronounced “glisten”—the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network), the largest national network of parents, students, educators and others ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in K-12 schools. See www.glsen.org for resources and information on beginning or strengthening a GSA, as well as for other helpful information about student rights and safer schools.
Two regional chapters in Maine, GLSEN-Southern Maine (based in Portland) and Downeast GLSEN (based in Ellsworth), support the growth of gay-straight alliances in Maine, offering GSA youth and advisors opportunities to meet, exchange ideas, share resources and support each other.
How Does a GSA Get Started?
GSAs must be started through student initiative. Usually one or more students decide they have reached the end of their patience in enduring the commonly accepted anti-gay bias in their school. Some of these students may be GLBTQ and some may be straight students who are concerned for family members or friends, or who are simply making their school safer for everyone.
Concerned students find one or more school-based adults who will agree to advise a new GSA. An adult advisor may be any school staff person: teachers most commonly serve, but social workers, school nurses, and alcohol/drug abuse counselors also often volunteer.
Heterosexual-identified students and adults have a very important role in building sturdy GSAs. If a GLBT staff person agrees to serve as an advisor, it is strongly advisable to have another advisor who is straight. This models partnership in working for social justice and sends a clear message to the school community that safety is everyone’s concern.
Other steps for establishing a GSA include discussing the initiative with administration, following the school’s process for establishing a student club, setting meeting times and places, getting the word out, starting a club fund and more.
Is a Public School Legally Required to Allow a GSA?
The Federal Equal Access Act mandates that if a public high school allows any student group whose purpose is not directly related to the curriculum to meet on school grounds during lunch or after school, it may not deny other student groups access to the school because of the content of the groups’ proposed discussions. Schools may not pick and choose among clubs based on their particular preferences for what students discuss. Simply put, all noncurricular clubs must be treated equally. For more information about your legal rights, please visit: Student Pride and www.aclu.org/safeschools.
Resources in Maine
Supporting GLBTQ youth ages 22 and under
Outright’s mission is to create safe, positive, and affirming environments for young, gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and questioning people ages 22 and under. Outright aspires to a youth-driven philosophy in which youth needs and beliefs form decisions and a collaboration of youth and adults provide support, education, advocacy and social activities.
How to contact Outright Portland:
(phone support and other information)
(207) 828-6560 or 1-800-567-7600
Contact information for other Outrights throughout Maine that are loosely connected with Outright in Portland:
Central Maine Outright
One Weston Court
Augusta, ME 04330
(207) 667-3506 Ask for Mike or Mary
Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
“Working to end anti-gay bias in schools”
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, founded in 1990, is the largest national organization fighting anti-gay bias in K-12 public, private and parochial schools. GLSEN is an education organization creating safe schools for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. GLSEN includes teachers, parents, youth, school administrators, counselors, librarians, clergy, health care professionals, and other concerned citizens, working together to make schools safer for learning. (www.GLSEN.org)
Maine GLSEN Chapters
GLSEN Downeast Maine
PO Box 373
Ellsworth, Maine 04605
GLSEN Southern Maine
PO Box 10334
Portland, Maine 04104
Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG)
Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG) is a national non-profit organization with over 200,000 members and supporters and almost 500 affiliates in the United States.
PFLAG Mission: PFLAG promotes the health and well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, their families and friends through: support, to cope with an adverse society; education, to enlighten an ill-informed public; and advocacy, to end discrimination and to secure equal civil rights. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays provides opportunity for dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity, and acts to create a society that is healthy and respectful of human diversity. (www.pflag.org)
PFLAG Chapters in Maine:
PO Box 8742
Portland, ME 04104
Helpline: (207) 774-3441
302 Winkumpaugh Road
Ellsworth, ME 04605
72 Woodside Road
Brunswick, ME 04011
Maine Speakout Project
Mission: The Maine Speakout Project was organized in April 1995 to promote respect and understanding among persons of differing sexual orientations. To accomplish their mission, Speakout trains and empowers volunteers to share their personal experiences and perspectives with individuals and community groups.
Toll Free: 1-866-879-MSOP (6767)
Postal address: PO Box 15303, Portland, ME 04112-5303
E- mail: email@example.com
University of Maine
Rainbow Resource Center
University of Maine
Room 162 Memorial Union
Orono, Maine 04469
University of Southern Maine
The Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity
University of Southern Maine
135 Woodbury Campus Center, Portland, ME
Michelle Brodsky, Coordinator
Additional Internet Resources
National Coming Out Project (www.hrc.org)
Public education/support around coming out
ACLU Safe Schools Project (www.aclu.org/safeschools)
Legal and safe schools information from ACLU
National coalition of LGBT youth offering resources and support
1 Amnesty International. Breaking the Silence: Human Rights Violations Based on Sexual Orientation. London, 1997.
2 The National Network of Runaway and Youth Services, To Whom Do They Belong?: Runaway, Homeless and Other Youth in High-Risk Situations in the 1990’s (Washington, D.C. The National Network, 1991), as cited by Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) at http://community.pflag.org/Page.aspx?pid=1011
3 W. J. Blumenfeld, W. J., “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Suicide,” Transgender Tapestry, Spring 1999: 60-66.
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Call 800-287-0274 or TDD 800-287-8957 (in Maine), or 207-581-3188, for information on publications and program offerings from University of Maine Cooperative Extension, or visit extension.umaine.edu.
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